The magnificent 14th century Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar is, without question, the finest Gothic church in Barcelona, a city resplendent with Gothic buildings. It has been celebrated since its construction by the faithful, architects, writers, and artists as a miracle of light, geometry, and tranquility for nearly 700 years. However, the history of the parish is much older, and just as interesting as the building itself.
Between 300 and 500 A.D., the site of the basilica was a Roman cemetery outside the city walls; vestiges of the catacombs and tombs were re-discovered in the 1960s during restoration work on the foundations of the present building. Barcelona’s patron saint, St. Eulalia, was buried here after her martyrdom in approximately 303 A.D. Following the legalization of Christianity, devotion to her grew and her relics were preserved in a succession of churches on the site until they were transferred to the Cathedral.
The first documentary evidence for a church on the site dedicated to St. Mary of the Sea dates from 998 A.D., though when this structure was built and what it looked like remains unknown. What is known is that in 1324, the idea for a new and larger church began to take hold. The cornerstone for the present building was laid on March 25, 1329, the Feast of the Annunciation, by King Alfons the Pious. In an extraordinary effort for its time, combining donations of time and treasure from all of the local guilds, parishioners, the crown, and the diocese, construction proceeded so quickly that the church came into regular use by 1350, and the final stone was laid on November 3, 1383, with the formal dedication mass taking place on the Feast of the Assumption the following year.
Because of the comparatively rapid time frame in which it was built, and because the 14th century marked the height of Barcelona’s empire, wealth, and artistic achievement during the Middle Ages, there is a remarkable architectural unity in the completed building. Most large Gothic churches throughout Europe took centuries to build, and often ended up in a hodgepodge of different styles. Because it only took 54 years to build Santa Maria del Mar, the end result is wonderfully harmonious, strongly influenced by the clean-lined, geometric Cistercian Gothic popular in France and in Northern Spain during this period.
What most strikes visitors upon entering the building is the vast and austere interior space, beautifully lit by clerestory windows and supported only by slender octagonal columns; it is universally regarded as a marvel of engineering. Part of the reason for the cleanliness of the interior is that the church was burned, like many others, by the Leftists during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The fire destroyed many of the altarpieces and statuary that had been placed in the church over the centuries, particularly during the Baroque and Neo-Gothic periods in the 18th and 19th centuries. The end result was, ironically enough, that Santa Maria del Mar emerged from the ashes more beautiful than she had been in years, stripped of well-intentioned but tacky frills and do-dads that did not suit her.